How I try out new materials

I often see people at art material trade shows or art supply stores, trying out pencils, pens, paints or papers by making a few quick strokes.  In ten seconds, they’ve already decided whether they like it or not and will ever buy it.  They put it down and walk away. This is unfortunate.  Think of how many things you hated or were awful at on your very first attempt or usage:  climbing a tree, driving a car, wearing a bra, drinking beer, speaking in front of a group, ice skating, using a new phone.  In each case, there is nothing inherently wrong with the object or activity, it’s only that one quick try isn’t enough to understand it or have any skill with it.  One needs to invest a little more time with it, and then it’s fine.  It might even be better than fine, it might be terrific!

Many art supply manufacturers know of this short-attention-span problem and give out free samples for folks to take home and try on a small project.  A small sheet of paper, or a pencil, for example.  But that doesn’t seem to help; many artists I know have drawers or boxes full of free samples they’ve never used but can’t bring themselves to donate.

I have a few free samples laying around, too.  But if something comes recommended, such as a particular brand of colored pencils or a particular type of paper, I don’t simply do a quickie scribble.  I launch into a full-scale project with it.  By the end of the project, I’ve spent several hours learning how that material behaves under the full range of my expectations, and I either have a new finished artwork to add to my body of work, or a binned failure.  The latter is pretty rare, though, because I can generally augment the process with materials I do already like and it turns out fine anyway.

Two recent cases illustrate my point.

Case #1: Pencils

Tree of Stories, 15"x20", colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories, 15″ x 20″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories was my first time using Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils.  It’s 15″ x 20″, so I knew I was in for several weeks of familiarization.

The first few strokes I put on my Stonehenge paper, I thought “Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work at all.  I’ve made an expensive mistake buying the whole 120 set.”  They are oil-based so are much more powdery than waxy Prismacolor Premiers or Caran d’Ache Luminance.  Because of that, I could lightly run my finger across the surface of the paper and quite a bit of pigment lifted right off.  Horrors!  But then I thought, “Well, maybe I can use that powderiness to my advantage–it probably will fill the tooth of the paper easier.”  And it did.  I was careful to keep a paper shield under my drawing hand at all times and never scoot it to move it.

Then after a day or two I noticed that it seemed the darker colors had faded and I had to re-apply them to enforce their intensity.  It wasn’t my imagination.  From talking to other artists I learned that Stonehenge paper seems to absorb something in the Polychromos.  That was easy to fix–I added a bit of Prismacolor on top of those areas.  By the time I finished a few weeks later, I knew how to use Polychromos pencils to do what I want, admired their range of browns and greens, and had a drawing that was good enough for acceptance into the 2014 CPSA International Exhibition.

If I had stopped after those first few strokes, Tree of Stories would still have happened with other pencils, but I would be telling people, very mistakenly, that these great Polychromos pencils are awful.

Case #2: Paper

Mutual Support, 14"x21", graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, was my first time using Canson 88 paper.  I had been looking for some good paper for graphite, to achieve darks without a lot of shininess.  Stonehenge paper works great for colored pencil but isn’t quite what I wanted for graphite.  Gil McMillon, the owner of Accent Arts in Palo Alto, suggested another printmaking paper, Canson 88.  It’s 100% cotton like Stonehenge but has almost a plate surface.  I was skeptical–how could such a smooth surface work for graphite?  I bought a single 22″x30″ sheet for about $8.50–quite a bit more than a sheet of Stonehenge costs.  The first few strokes I took on it seemed to confirm my fear–there was virtually no tooth at all, so the graphite went on very smoothly.  I thought “Oh no, the pencil is going to skate right off the surface and the whole drawing will end up light gray. I just wasted $8.50 on this big sheet I can’t use for anything else.”  But I kept going, and within an hour I was sold on it.  The fact that it’s 100% cotton makes it hold graphite despite its plate surface. It’s easy to achieve smooth shading and very dark darks since there is virtually no tooth to fill.  I used only a 4B pencil for the entire drawing and am very pleased with how it turned out.  I returned to Accent Arts yesterday to buy two more sheets!

To summarize, it takes more than a few strokes to decide if an art material is right for your way of working; you won’t really know before you invest a few hours with it.  Be brave, launch into a full-fledged piece with the same determination you give to your usual work.

Why don’t you draw more?

I completed 10 drawings in 2014, and 10 in 2013.  I’m pleased with that number, but you might wonder “Why don’t you draw more?”  The answer is complicated!  I’m not here to make excuses, I’m here to help my fellow artists feel less guilty about their own production rate, and help others understand why I’m fine with my rate.  There’s more involved than the actual art creation!

First of all, I have a full-time job as a software engineer at a startup company, so that consumes a minimum of 40 hours per week.  Art is not my “hobby”, though—it’s my other career.  Every day, I have art-related stuff to do.  I’m no less of a professional for having a non-art-related career that I enjoy and that pays the bills and subsidizes my art business.  It just means I can’t do my art activities full-time.

Second, my drawings take many hours to complete.  A 5”x7” image of a monarch butterfly may take up to 20 hours; a 15”x20” image of a tree may take 80 or more hours.  It’s the nature of colored pencil, one of the few downsides of the medium.

Third, there’s everything else.  To illustrate: last Sunday I spent most of the day doing art-related tasks that involved no drawing at all.  It was all stuff that needed to be done:

  • Uploaded a new image to my website and two other websites on which I have galleries
  • Updated prices and calendar page on my website
  • Reviewed several dozen potential reference photos to narrow down to what my next drawing will be
  • Submitted an entry for an upcoming juried exhibit
  • Set up a new set of 120 colored pencils, organized in containers by color family
  • Corresponded with the education coordinator regarding my upcoming workshop
  • Emailed advance information to the registrants of my upcoming workshop
  • Assembled packets for my upcoming workshop
  • Corresponded with a commission client
  • Made giclee prints for client
  • Read latest issue of Professional Artist magazine
  • Closed out income and expense folders from 2014
  • Created new business spreadsheet for 2015
  • Reviewed sale ads from online art supply retailers for possible bargains

I get tired just reading all that!  I didn’t even realize I’d accomplished so much until I wrote it out.  Anyway, this is a good example of how a day can be consumed by doing necessary art-related tasks without actually creating art.  And this is not unusual.  Other tasks that may come up are:

  • Answering queries from my website
  • Preparing presentations
  • Delivering or picking up artwork from the framer
  • Delivering or picking up artwork from an exhibit
  • Attending an exhibit opening reception
  • Packaging artwork for shipment
  • Taking artwork to USPS or UPS
  • Blogging
  • Buying supplies, either online or at a local store
  • Planning and running CPSA chapter meetings and events
  • Printing and packaging cards and prints for sale
  • Scanning artwork and processing the digital images
  • Recording my income, expenses and mileage in a spreadsheet and filing receipts

Many of the tasks on these lists would not be there if I was doing my art only recreationally, but since I am trying to meet professional goals and make a business of it, they are necessary.  So 10 finished drawings per year is fine with me.

2014 was a good year! Here comes 2015….

New Year’s Eve is a popular time to reflect on the past 365 days and plan for the next. As I do so, I’m pleased to conclude that 2014 was a good year art-wise!

  • My art and I were the focus of a 30-minute TV program called Talk Art.
  • I had artwork accepted into the UKCPS International Exhibition in Birmingham, England, the CPSA International Exhibition in Ormond Beach, Florida, the Pencil Art Society International Exhibiton in Repentigny, Quebec, the California State Fair in Sacramento, the Richeson 75 Still Life and Floral online exhibition and the Richeson 75 Animals, Birds and Wildlife online exhibition.
  • I was chosen as the featured artist for the July issue of Colored Pencil magazine.
  • Ann Kullberg published my Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly In-Depth Kit.
  • I taught my first colored pencil workshops, at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto, CA.
  • I had artwork selected for two books: CP Treasures, Vol. III and the upcoming Strokes of Genius 7: Depth, Dimension and Space.
  • I completed 10 new drawings, including 2 portrait commissions.
  • I sold three original artworks.
  • I exhibited at a couple of outdoor festivals.
  • I demoed Caran d’Ache products for Creative Art Materials at a couple of events.
  • I attended the CPSA convention in Florida.

Along with all that, I also kept my CPSA chapter running; we had a presentation at each of our four meetings, hosted a two-day workshop, put together a juried show at a local gallery, had a plein-air outing at a plant nursery, and exhibited at a festival in Livermore.

And I had an involuntary change of day jobs in the middle of it all.  Whew!

So what am I anticipating or shooting for in 2015?  Well, I like to under-promise so I can over-deliver–that’s the software engineer in me speaking up. So here’s a short list….

  • I’ll find out in a couple of weeks whether my entry for CPSA’s Explore This! 11 is accepted; if it is, I will earn CPX signature status.
  • I’m already scheduled to teach my half-day colored pencil workshop on January 11 and April 12.
  • I hope to gain representation by a second gallery.
  • I’ve already registered to participate in Silicon Valley Open Studios for two weekends in May; in fact I’ve volunteered to help SVOS with the matching of artists to group sites, so the work for it has already begun.
  • Although I have no idea yet what I’ll be drawing for them, I plan to enter the UKCPS and CPSA International Exhibitions; if my entries are accepted I’ll earn UKCPS “Silver” and CPSA five-year merit awards.
  • I want to do some work with pastels.  This is an unfulfilled goal from 2014; I did take a 3-day pastel portrait workshop but that was as far as I got.  I have a very nice set of Unison soft pastels calling to me.

Happy New Year 2015!

“CP Treasures Volume III” now available

Today I received my copy of CP Treasures Vol. III, edited by Ann Kullberg.

157I eagerly opened the cover, and just about fell over.  Look what image was chosen for the inside front cover!

CPTreasuresIIIThe original of “Tree of Stories” sold three weeks ago to a collector in Pleasanton, CA.  I was still pretty attached to it, so I was a little sad to see it gone from my wall at home, but that’s the hazard of putting a price on artwork instead of “NFS” (Not For Sale)–someone might buy it!  I’m thrilled and honored to see it immortalized in the front of this gorgeous book of more than 90 artworks by artists from 16 countries.

Here’s a slideshow sampling of some of the fantastic pieces in the book (including my tree agan!).

Solving a composition problem to rescue a drawing

I just finished “What Is It?” with Faber-Castell Polychromos and Prismacolors on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper, 12″ x 24″.


“What Is It?”, 12″x24″, colored pencil on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper.

I’m so glad to finally be done with this one, as it’s been on my drawing table for two months. I originally planned to not include any background at all so I could work larger and finish quickly; the tinted paper would provide the appropriate base color.  But as soon as the hens were done I realized that was a compositional mistake because the big gaping area between the left hen and the others was distracting attention away from the focus point of the “V” and they seemed to be floating in space on little skateboards.


Hens finished, their shadows almost finished.

I pondered what to do about it. Something was needed to break up the space, while keeping the focus at the base of the “V”.  Another hen?  No, that would break down the “V” composition.  A lot of grass?  No, that wouldn’t solve anything, it would just be all green instead of all tan.  A feed trough?  No, that would detract from the focus on the hens.

After pondering for about a week, I looked at my reference photo with fresh eyes and realized the large dark shadow behind the hens gave visual punch to the light on their feathers and also broke up that big gap without drawing attention to itself.


Reference photo for “What Is It?”

I decided a “spotlight” effect was what they needed–curving the dark area around the sides a bit would do a better job of suggesting the focus was in the middle, than a dark line across the back.

Decision made, I still had to execute the background.  Mi Tientes paper is rather toothy even on the “smooth” side, so I had to work slowly with a sharp point to achieve a relatively smooth look without blotches.  A layer of caput mortuum and then burnt umber looked okay but the overall effect was rather monochromatic.


Burnt umber layer nearly complete over caput mortuum layer.

Since the hens’ feathers were reds and oranges, I chose indigo blue as the third layer and got just the effect I was looking for.  A little “glow” of brown ochre near the base of the curve helped unify the foreground and background.  The background took more than twice as long as the hens themselves!  I wouldn’t have chosen to work this size (12″x24″) if I’d known I was going to spend so many hours just on the silly background.  A “busy” background would’ve been much easier than a smooth gradient!


“What Is It?” 12″x24″, colored pencil on Canson Mi Tientes colored paper.

I think I saved it!  Problem solved!  Lesson learned: in the future I’ll pay closer attention to the composition of my subject(s) when I “lift” them from a reference photo, before I start working on the drawing.

Art in TWO upcoming books!

I received the news this week that my Dreaming Big has been selected for the soon-to-be-published Strokes of Genius 7: Depth, Dimension and Space from North Light Books.


“Dreaming Big”, 12″x16″, colored pencil and graphite on Stonehenge paper.

I also received the news that my Tree of Stories has been selected for inclusion in CP Treasures, Vol. III from Ann Kullberg.


“Tree of Stories”, 15″x20″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper.

What a great week!

The Bad Teacher

Occasionally in conversation, someone tells a story about a teacher they had who turned them off a particular subject or activity forever with just one sharp remark or action.  I have such a story, too, but the ending is different.

I attended a two-room elementary school with grades 1-4 together in one room and grades 5-8 in the other.  Mrs. Gibbs was the teacher for grades 1-4.  I always finished my homework as quickly as possible during the school day, so that I had free time to pull out my paper and crayons and draw.  It was my reward to myself!

One afternoon during 4th grade, I was so engrossed in drawing a tree (yes, I still remember that it was a tree), that I didn’t notice Mrs. Gibbs had walked up behind me.  She suddenly barked “What are you doing, drawing and coloring?  That’s for first-graders!  Are you a first-grader?  You pick up your colors and go sit with the first-graders for the rest of the day!”

I was shocked!  I had no idea what I’d done to deserve such a rebuke, and tears welled up.  Back-talk was not tolerated, though–this was in the era when every schoolteacher had a paddle–so I hastily gathered my pencil, colors and paper tablet and moved to an empty desk among the first-graders.  All the other students were surprised, too, and none dared to say anything.  There was no laughter as I obeyed.

This is the point where most people’s story ends with “And I never drew/sang/liked arithmetic/read aloud/jumped rope/spoke up again.”  But I finished that tree.

Mrs. Gibbs retired at the end of that year. It’s a good thing. That was the kind of incident that squelches creativity, interest and learning in too many children.  If I wasn’t so stubborn and so eager to draw, it might have done me in, too.

I sometimes wonder how many people’s entire life trajectory was changed by a bad incident with a teacher.  I hope some of them find their way back through a positive experience later on.

Followup Aug. 24:  check out this TED talk–it’s what I’m talking about!